From land, water

From land, water

Last week I went to Wisconsin for a national meeting of economists and drinking water providers. We were there to talk about why Americans are using less water today than in the last fifty years. As surprising as it may seem, from the exploding suburbs of Phoenix to the dwindling city of Detroit, people are actually using less water.

That got me thinking about the success stories that rarely get told, and the problems we think are intractable that have already been solved. I’ve been spending a lot of time recently moping about the loss of springs in areas of Texas desperate for water of any kind. But as I walked around the prairie the Johnson Foundation has been restoring at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wingspread there in Racine, Wisconsin, I remembered something a friend had told me a couple of weeks before.

The Bamberger Ranch Preserve in Johnson City, Texas was overrun by water-sucking cedar and ashe juniper, just like most of the land in Central Texas. Although these trees are part of the iconic landscape of Texas, modern efforts to suppress wildfires and more than a hundred years of grazing have allowed cedar and juniper to take over the land. Cedar trees are estimated to cover 7 million acres of land on the Edwards Plateau alone. The result is less water infiltrating the soil and the aquifers, and diminished spring activity.

The Bamberger family was probably one of the first in Texas to start restoring grasslands as a way of luring back the spring water that once flowed on that Hill Country land. Their success has inspired state-funded programs to bring back water on once-barren lands.

In our new era of cross-sector resource cooperation, grassland restoration is even becoming part of corporate practice. MillerCoors, like some other water-intensive companies, has realized that its operations depend not just on its water management, but the water and land use practices of everyone in the areas it operates. In North Texas and Wisconsin, the beer bottler is paying farmers to plant native grasses that are better at retaining rainwater, so the soil can store the water instead of channeling it away.

You can visit the Bamberger Ranch to see firsthand the results of their water and grassland restoration efforts. And if you are near Austin, check out a prairie restoration project in progress at Commons Ford Ranch Metropolitan Park on Lake Austin (above, entrance is free). Bring your dog too so you can go swimming.

And if you want to learn how to finance sustainable water infrastructure, check out the iBook version of a report I wrote with the Johnson Foundation.

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